Long Term Review: Extension Tubes vs. Macro Conversion Lens

Let’s face it, it wasn’t easy to obtain good information when it comes to equipment related to Macro Photography, simply because the gears are expensive and diverse- no one simply has the time and money to test them all, let alone write detailed reviews about them. In this article I will write about how I feel about my Extension Tubes and Macro Conversion Lens (Raynox) when it comes to Macro Photography. I have had these Macro Accessories for around 2 years. Hopefully the details here will help dedicated Macro Enthusiast venture into the Macro World without breaking his or her pocket!

Macro Conversion Lens and Extension Tubes: Which one should you choose?

Macro Conversion Lenses and Extension Tubes are great Macro Accessories to start your macro journey, but which one is more suitable for your shooting style?

 You are pretty much limited to advice and comments from people when it comes to choosing Macro lenses and accessories, and they all seem to have different opinions! After getting myself really confused, I started off with a set of Kenko Extension Tubes because I know them plastic ones won’t survive hardcore usage, and simply because I needed the Autofocus capabilities. At that time (~2 years ago), I have heard of Raynox but not Reverse Rings. To learn more about these macro-capable accessories, kindly read Getting Your First Macro Camera.

Automatic Extension Tubes 

Extension Tubes (ET) are hollow tubes that, when attached, increase magnification. Generally, the more you attach, the higher the magnification. After two years of rough usage, I have already changed two sets of Kenko Extension Tubes, equalling to ~RM1000. The tubes come in three levels: 12mm, 20mm and 36mm.

 

Kenko Extension Tubes

My first set of Kenko Extension Tubes. They are the most premium and high quality, 3rd party ET in Malaysia, costing about RM550 for a set. These tubes are well known for their sturdiness and AF-capabilities.

Macro Setup Mark 1

How Extension Tubes are used. Here 3 levels of Kenko ET (12mm, 20mm and 36mm) are attached to a 50mm F1.8 (non-macro) lens.

Although Extension Tubes offer great versatility when it comes to photographing Nature Photography (suitable for bugs of all sizes), they are not very reliable. Mind you, Kenko is one of the best, and more expensive 3rd party ET in the market. The 12mm and 20mm were always the first to go, losing electronic link between the lens and the DSLR body. This happened because of the heavy weight of the lens.

No contact

A Nikon DSLR body will automatically shoot at an aperture of F0 when the contact between the lens and the body becomes severed. This issue will occur after prolonged usage of Extension Tubes.

 

I purchased a second set of Kenko ET not because I knew they will eventually spoil, but rather because I wanted higher magnification (like all beginners do T___T) by pairing 2x 36mm ET. I have never expected my first Kenko 36mm ET to fail, considering the relatively thick and sturdy build.

Based on this experience, I would say that 3rd party ET (from Kenko and the slightly cheaper Meike) are not sturdy enough for long-termed Macro usage. I have heard comments that first party ET (Canon, Nikon etc.) are of even better quality. However, considering the steep price, and also the fact that there are better Macro Accessories out there, it is rather unlikely that I will get any of those any time soon.

Advantages:

  • Versatility in magnification due to the 3 tube levels
  • Wide focus distance for each tube level
  • Autofocus capable
  • Portable and easy-to-use
  • Can be used with short Macro Lenses (e.g. 40-60mm focal range)

Disadvantages:

  • Loses light with each tube (especially challenging during night field trips)
  • Not sturdy especially with all 3 levels attached
  • Image quality seem to be affected slightly
  • Unreliable

Verdict: Extension Tubes are great Macro Accessories to start your Macro Journey. However, ET should not be paired with heavy Macro Lenses (>1kg) to ensure reliability (It took me 2 years of rough usage to actually “destroy” my 36mm Kenko ET).


Macro Conversion Lens

Macro Conversion Lenses (MCL) are clip-on lenses that offer instant magnification. The two most common MCL are Raynox-150 and Raynox-250, learn more about them in Raynox 150 vs. Raynox-250. I bought the Raynox-250 (2.5x magnification) a few months after I got my first Kenko Extension Tubes, mainly because some other Macro Photographers say that its good, and they were right. The Raynox-250 offers really high magnification without any loss of light, and the resulting photos are tact sharp.

Macro Conversion Lenses


Macro Conversion Lenses: Raynox-150 and Raynox-250

Macro Conversion Lens


How a Macro Conversion Lens is used. Here a Raynox-250 is clipped onto a Nikkor 105mm F2.8 micro lens.

The biggest issue I had with the Raynox-250 was that it didn’t suit my shooting style. The really close focusing distance and ultra high magnification means that it is only suitable for small subjects (<~1cm). Anything larger you will have to make do with photographing certain body parts of the subject. At that time I only use the Raynox-250 when subjects are very small.  It is not until recently that I’ve discovered the existence of the Raynox-150 which allows slightly less magnification (1.5x) but a wider focusing distance, it suited me perfectly.

Advantages:

  • No loss of light
  • Portable and easy-to-use
  • Photos are sharp
  • Autofocus capable
  • Reliable

Disadvantages:

  • Relatively shorter focusing range (compared to ET)
  • The view may be blocked if clipped inappropriately
  • Fogging issues
  • Raynox-250 not practical for short Macro Lenses (e.g. 40-60mm focal range)
  • Lens accumulates dust easily

Verdict: Depending on your Macro Lens and also your shooting style, MCL offer good performance for the price. Although most people always start with a Raynox-250, I would encourage potential buyers to test out both the Raynox-150 and -250 first to determine which one is more suitable. Take note that the very short focusing range of the Raynox-250 means that it is not suitable for short Macro Lens e.g. <60mm.


After 2 years of shooting Macro, I guess I can say that MCL are in fact, better than Extension Tubes in the long run, mainly because of their reliability. They are cheaper as well. On a side note, you can actually purchase cheap converter rings for your Raynox so that they no longer need to be clipped on and off.

Macro Setup Mark III

Of course, if budget is not a constrain, you can always get everything XD

 

That’s all for this very short article, I hope you find it useful  🙂

Macro Photography: Raynox-150 vs Raynox-250

If you have read the articles in Pixelsdimension right from the start, you would’ve noticed that the Raynox-250 had been mentioned quite a number of times, particularly in Getting Your First Macro Camera. This Raynox-250 is essentially a Macro Conversion Lens (MCL) which, when clipped on, drastically increase the magnification of your lens (2.5x to be precise). There are many benefits to using a MCL, and the Raynox-250 is by far the most popular in Malaysia- People will always recommend this model, and most would just follow the advice. Like many others I started off with a Raynox-250.

Signal Fly

This Signal Fly was taken with a Raynox Macro Conversion Lens, a versatile macro accessory that is often present in a Macro Enthusiast’s arsenal.

It is not until my recent discussion with a famous Macro Photographer that I noticed that there are other suitable and practical MCL for Macrography, notably the Raynox-150. The Raynox-150, as you might have guessed, is the little brother of the Raynox-250, providing slightly less magnification (at 1.5x) but with a slightly farther working distance. This particular article aims to enlighten beginners or enthusiasts about the performances of Raynox-150 and Raynox-250, allowing them to select the MCL more suited to their style of photography.

Raynox-150 vs Raynox-250

Brothers. The very popular Raynox-250, and its neglected brother, the Raynox-150. Which one do you need?

After learning a bit more about the Raynox-150, I have decided to buy one and try it since it suits my way of taking natural, wildlife photos. A brief surf of the internet quickly revealed that there was pretty much only one store selling this particular lens, and at a hefty price too! So if you are keen on purchasing this MCL after reading this article, you might want to consider importing one from overseas, which will likely be cheaper. The prices of the Raynox-150 and Raynox-250 are quite close at ~RM250-300.

In terms of specifications, both the Raynox-150 and -250 have a front mount diameter of 49mm, and a rear mount diameter of 43mm (and comes with a clip-on universal mount suitable for lenses with diameter of 52-67mm). The Raynox-150 (1.5x magnification) is only very slightly lighter than the Raynox-250 (2.5x magnification).

Raynox-150 vs Raynox-250

Both the Raynox-150 and -250 are made in Japan, and look very similar to one another, even when it comes to pricing! Sorry for the dirty lenses, both have seen quite a fair bit of action in the wilderness XD

The following are some sample shots using a Raynox-150/250 on a Nikkor 105mm F2.8 lens mounted on a Nikon D800 for comparison. Shots were taken at a fixed settings of ISO100, F16, 1/250, 105mm, flash fired at full power (with diffuser). All photos are unedited and not cropped; the maximum and minimum distances of each MCL were also roughly measured. However, due to slow internet and limited quota, I am uploading the resized versions. For those who are interested in the original files, please feel free to email me at jtan@utar.edu.my.

Raynox-150 performance

Unedited photo showing [Top] the maximum possible distance (minimum magnification) and [Bottom] the minimum possible distance (maximum magnification) of the Raynox-150.

Raynox-250 preformance

Unedited photo showing [Top] the maximum possible distance (minimum magnification) and [Bottom] the minimum possible distance (maximum magnification) of the Raynox-250.

Here are the rough measurements:

Raynox-150:

The maximum focusing distance (minimum magnification) is 22cm; the minimum focusing distance (maximum magnification) is 12.5cm.

Raynox-250:

The maximum focusing distance (minimum magnification) is 13cm; the minimum focusing distance (maximum magnification) is 8cm.

* Please take note that these measurements were obtained on a 105mm macro lens, and a Full-frame (FF) Nikon D800. On a Crop-Sensor (APS-C) DSLR with the same lens, the distance will be slightly farther. Learn more about the difference between Crop-Sensor and FF DSLRs in Choosing the Best DSLR for Macro Photography.


Of course, all these numbers do not mean much when out in the field, it all depends on what you are shooting. If you are photographing a very tiny subject, say <1cm, the Raynox-250 will really come in handy as it offers enough magnification for a great shot. However, if you are photographing subjects that are larger than 1cm (which many insects are), the Raynox-250 would not be able to fit the entire subject into the frame since you can only “zoom out” that much (~13cm). Even if you manage to “squeeze” the entire subject (say <2cm) into the shot, due to the shallow Depth-of-Field (DOF) [Learn more about DOF HERE], your shot will not turn out well either, especially if you are shooting at poor angles. The Raynox-150, on the other hand allows you more versatility when it comes to photographing larger insects (due to the large focusing range of 12.5-22cm), although it doesn’t offer as much magnification as its counterpart; sometimes it can be a good thing.

Shallow DOF

Taking a single shot at the highest magnification possible will not always give you the best results, particularly so if your subject is large in size. This shot was taken with a Raynox-250. I took this shot focusing on the eyes of the bug. Even though I wasn’t shooting at highest magnification, you can easily see that part of the bug (red circle) is already out of focus (OOF). So if you were to get closer, the OOF parts will become more apparent, even to the point that it ruins your shot.

Most beginners in Macro Photography will always opt for Macro Systems with the highest magnifications (I use to do this as well XD), which is why Raynox-250 is so popular. However, in many cases the Raynox-250 is often shelved because of its limited usability i.e. close focusing distance and shallow DOF. This is when the Raynox-150 might perform better, depending on the shooting style of the Macro Enthusiast.

Raynox-150 vs Raynox-250

Getting the Macro Conversion Lens that offers the highest magnification could turn out to be a double-edge sword. It is best to understand your style of shooting before making the pick.

It is not really difficult to determine whether the Raynox-150 or -250 suits you better. Just have a look at your previous Macro photos. Do you usually photograph large or tiny organisms? For the former, go for the Raynox-150, and for the latter, the Raynox-250. Simple as that.

Heavy Jumper- Hyllus diardi ♀

A Hyllus diardi heavy jumper. If you love to shoot tiny subjects of ~1cm or less, then the Raynox-250 would certainly suit you better. However, you are going to have to learn to cope with the limited working distance, which can be challenging to focus on a moving subject.

I hope you find this short article useful, especially to those who are looking to try out Raynox MCL lenses. For those who are currently using Extension Tubes and are wondering why you should upgrade to MCL lenses, please read Long Term Review: Extension Tubes vs. Macro Conversion Lens.

Until then, thank you and have a pleasant day ahead guys!

How Good Is Your Flash Diffuser?

After shooting macro for around 2 years, I have noticed that there are quite a lot of things that I do not know, and many skills that I have yet to grasp. However, there is one thing that I am absolutely certain- You need to use flash if you truly want to master Macro. Not sure why? Please read Using Flash In Macro Photography for more details.

Pancorius cf. magnus ♀

Lighting is the most important aspect of Macro Photography. Great lighting can be achieved using a good flash coupled with a great diffuser.

 

 

Those who are into Macro Photography for some time will notice eventually that simply blasting your subjects with super bright flash will not give you great results, simply because the lights are too harsh. Diffusers are thus needed to “soften” the light. Considering the lack of readily available diffusers in the market, most enthusiasts and pros alike resort to making their own diffusers based on their own creativity and innovation. Please read HERE to learn more about making an awesome flash diffuse. Please feel free to check out my versions of diffusers (a bit outdated, but it works XD) if you like in My Macro Rig.

Assassin bug assasinating

Bad (or more accurately, NO) diffusion. One of my first outdoor macro shots. I knew that using a flash is important, but without a diffuser, the light falling onto the subject was really harsh, causing overexposed parts on the assassin bug, and casting obvious shadows underneath. You will not get this with a good diffuser.

 

Okay, so now that you have made your own diffuser, how do you gauge its effectiveness at softening the light coming from your flash? Shooting still subjects indoors is definitely a big NO NO as the ambient light is often too dark for you to assess your light diffusion. Most Macro Photographers will head outdoors to test their new diffusers, which is the right thing to do. However, most are unsure which diffusion aspects that they should check for, which brings us to today’s short article.


There are only three things to check when you assess a flash diffuser; and the best way to test them is to use specific creatures as subjects:

1. Light Diffusion

The better the light diffusion, the softer the light hitting the surface of the subject. If you are unsure, check the shadows cast of your subject: A harsh light source will also generate a harsh shadow (clear shadow boundary).

Diffuser (Before and After)

Light Diffusion: A before and after shot of a female Argiope doleschalli. I took the top shot using only one plastic diffuser for the flash. The 2nd one includes another plastic + fabric diffuser to further diffuse the light. The differences are obvious, especially on the glossy cephalothorax (head) of the spider.

Model: Any insect or arthropod with a shiny or glossy carapace e.g. metallic bugs, certain beetles, ladybirds etc.

Rationale: The glossy or shiny surfaces of arthropods are smooth and will reflect your flash directly. If your flash diffusion is mediocre, it will show up clearly. Testing your flash on other subjects (say a hairy spider or caterpillar) will not give you an accurate measure of your light diffusion since the light will be “absorbed” by the numerous minute hairs.

2. Light Spread

The better the light spread, the more evenly distributed the light that falls onto the subject. The idea is to ensure that light falls onto the entire subject (and of course the surrounding environment) from different angles, not just from the top.

Diffuser (Before and After)


Light Spread: Before and after shot of a (different) robberfly. The upper shot was taken with a flash without diffuser flashing from the top left; the lower shot was taken with a flash and diffuser coming from the top, plus a rounded dish diffuser in front of the lens (See My Macro Rig, Mark VIII). Note the eye apparent differences in shadow and colours of the robberfly’s eyes.

Model: Eyes of robberflies or dragonflies.

Rationale: The eyes or robberflies and dragonflies are large and rounded. In order to light up the entire eye, you will need a near-perfect light spread from your diffuser. The wonderful and “ever-changing” colours of the eyes of robberflies make a great indicator of your light spread too, which is why robberflies are a hit with most Macro Photographers.

3. Light Shape

The shape of your light, or more precisely, your diffuser may not be as important as the points stated above;  but they do come in real handy for specific shots.

 

Sub-female Heavy Jumper- Hyllus cf. keratodes ♀

Light Shape. The eyes of spiders (A Hyllus cf. keratodes here) make exceptionally great indicators for your light shape since they have so many eyes (8 in fact!). It is totally up to you and your imagination what type of shape you desire.

 

Model:  Eyes of jumping spiders, frogs, geckos, lizards, snakes etc.

Rationale: The eyes of many creatures will reflect the light coming out of your diffuser, which will show up in your final photo. If you create a star-shaped flash diffuser, you can expect many of your subjects to be “starry-eyed”!


Well, I guess that’s all there is to it, simple enough? 🙂

I hope you find this info interesting and useful in helping you construct a great DIY diffuser. Take note that there is no universal and “best” diffuser out there, as different photographers have different preferences in their shooting styles, so just keep trying until you find one that is most suited to your needs. Please do drop me a question should you ever need any help with designing and building a diffuser!

Green Scarab Beetle- cf. Anomala sp.

One last photo before I end- A Green Scarab Beetle (Anomala?). When you think you have designed an awesome flash diffuser, it is time to test it out on fully metallic subjects like this common beetle here. Subjects like this are almost impossible to photograph properly without a good diffuser.

 

Until the next article, Happy Shooting guys!


** All photos in this website are taken and owned by me. The use of any photos here is not allowed without my permission. 

Getting a Computer Suited for Photography

Hello again Macro-lovers! Today I would like to write a topic that is not directly related to Macro Photography (or any forms of Photography)- Computers!

Black and Red

Now that post-processing has become an important part of photography, having a good computer has become more important to allow faster and more efficient processing of your photos, regardless of genre.

For those who know me personally, you would know that I am an active forumer in Malaysia’s largest forum- Lowyat Forum. I spent around 3 years recommending laptops to eager buyers in the Mobile Computing section; where I have also gone through the trouble of cataloguing the details and prices of every single notebook in the current market within Malaysia. People like to consult me for laptop recommendations, mainly because I am not a laptop seller-  fair judgement.

Now that I am into photography, the experience and knowledge that I have gained as a laptop guru has really come in handy since I know what exactly is required for a good computer (both laptop and desktops) that is more suited for Photography, which I intend to share with you guys today.

I understand that not everyone is familiar with the computer system and hardware, so I shall try and keep things simple here. For simplicity I will just cover laptops and notebooks (however the contents apply to desktops as well). Please feel free to ask should you have any questions ya 🙂

Sony Vaio SVF14217SG pink 2

Choosing the right notebook will give you a significant edge in whatever computing process you run. Choosing the wrong notebook will probably give you nightmares and slow you down.

Every computer consists of many different components, each performing their own functions. Although all of them are needed to keep the computer running, some of them are more important than the others, depending on your intended usage for the computer. When it comes to Photography, there are five main components that you should pay attention to when choosing a computer: CPU, RAM, storage, monitor and GPU (in random order). Each component is described below:

1. CPU- Central Processing Unit
The CPU is the brain of the entire notebook, which is in charge of all the calculations that take place with your every instruction. Despite being the most important part of the notebook, the CPU is but a tiny silicon chip embedded on the motherboard- a circuit board connecting all components together.
CPU performance is gauged in terms of clock speed, usually measured in Gigahertz (Ghz)- in general, the higher the clock speed, the better the processing power. The higher the number of processing cores, the better the processing power too. However, the better the processing power, the higher the heat generated, so is the energy consumption.
The CPU can run very hot when the notebook is under load, which is why you will often find the CPU connected to a heat sink for cooling. High temperatures may damage internal components of the laptop, including the batteries.
Modern CPU often have an integrated graphic card which is sufficient for average usage (light gaming, video watching etc.)
Intel Processor

An Intel CPU. Most of the best processors are from Intel, and can be found in most notebooks. (Image from www.intel.com)

What should I choose? 
A computer with a good CPU will allow fast image rendering and multi-tasking. Programs like Adobe Photoshop may use up a lot of processing power when, say you are trying to auto-align numerous photos for stacking or panoramic shots. Of course, most people won’t just use their computers to only run Photoshop; a good CPU will allow other programs (internet browsers, videos, music etc.) to run lag-free even when Photoshop is doing its thing.
Which CPU to choose depends on the balance you want in between performance, portability and price.
  • A powerful CPU (i.e. Intel i7 quad-core processors) will be able to handle all the tasks you throw at it, but generates a lot of heat, consumes a lot of battery power and is expensive: Not really suitable if you are looking for a slim laptop and if you always run your laptop on batteries.
  • A decently-powered CPU (i.e. Intel i5 or i7 dual-core processors) offer balance in terms of performance, portability and price. Although not extremely good at processing and multi-tasking, it is a great option if you are always on-the-go.
  • A weak CPU (Intel Celeron etc.) may be highly affordable, but it is only suited for normal web browsing and office work, not really recommended for advance photo editing.
2. RAM- Random-Access Memory 
A computer’s “short term” memory, RAM “remembers” tasks that you have recently instructed (programs you have recently opened and closed etc.), enabling fast re-access. Currently RAMs are marketed in Gigabyte (GB) capacities. Most laptops have one or two RAM slots: You just need to buy a compatible RAM and slot it in and it will work immediately. (*Take note that the RAM may be soldered to the motherboard in ultra slim notebooks).
What should I choose?
Many applications (e.g. Google Chrome, Photoshop, Lightroom, Microsoft Office etc.) require RAM in order to function properly. This is especially true when you open them all at the same time (called multi-tasking). The more RAM capacity that you have, the better.
In general, 4GB is the minimum amount of RAM for normal computing. For photo editing, it is good to have at least 8GB RAM; best if around 12GB-16GB RAM. As aforementioned, RAM can be upgraded later on.
RAM

RAM helps a lot in multi-tasking, definitely worth investing in.

3. Storage: Hard Disk Drive (HDD) or Solid State Drive (SSD)
A computer’s storage media enables the storing and retrieval of digital information. The capacity of this storage is again in Gigabytes (GB). Most notebooks run on “conventional” HDD, essentially a rotating disc storing all the data. The data reading speed depends largely on the rotational speed of the disc; the faster the reading speed, the faster the opening of files, programs etc.
SSD technology has been around for quite some time now, but its not until ~2009 that they became popular. Relying on circuit boards for storage of data, an SSD (essentially an oversized thumbdrive) involves no moving parts and are thus lighter, much faster, runs cooler, lasts longer and are less prone to physical damage. However, SSDs have lower storage space and a higher price tag in general.
Apart from HDD and SSD, manufacturers are also offering mSATA SSD + HDD “hybrids” or Solid State Hybrid Drives (Momentus XT SSHD from Seagate) which offers features and performances in between those of HDD and SSD.
What should I choose? 
A notebook with a full SSD will allow you to enter Windows within ~10 seconds, and start Photoshop CS6 within ~4 seconds whereas a conventional notebook running on a HDD will probably take 2-3 times the time. Having an SSD will let you open numerous photos faster too. So, if you have the budget, definitely get an SSD. Otherwise get a hybrid SSD/HDD, followed by a HDD (7,200rpm rotational speed) and lastly HDD (5,400rpm). Although overlooked by many, the overall speed of a notebook is most bottlenecked by the HDD reading speed. It is thus best to opt for the fastest storage media whenever possible.
However, sadly full SSDs are mostly only available in ultrabooks (ultra slim notebooks or MacBook Airs) in Malaysia. However, you can always buy a SSD and a caddy (container for the SSD) to replace the original HDD of the notebook yourself. Some buyers may complain that SSD storage space is too limited, this can be easily resolved by getting external HDDs or even using SD cards for increased storage space.
For photography, it is best to store your photos and access or edit them in external HDDs i.e. using them as scratch disks. This will lessen the burden on your computer’s (internal) SSD or HDD.
SSD HDD

Storage solutions- A Hard Disk (HDD; top) and a Solid State Drive (SSD; bottom). Note the size difference (Only 50% of the HDD is shown here.) SSDs are the future to storage and will eventually phase out HDD, thanks to their superb speed, reliability and small form factor. Image courtesy of www.anandtech.com

4. Monitor display
Your notebook displays everything onto the screen, and the quality of images (i.e. sharpness, colour accuracy and vibrancy) that you see depends very much on the screen that you have. Selection of a proper screen is important as it will not only affect post-processing, but your entire computing experience as well. The specifics of notebook displays can get really complicated, but let’s just focus on four: screen size, screen type, screen resolution and screen finishing.
 Screen size. The screen size is related to the size of the laptop, and can range from a tiny 10.1″ to a whopping 18.4″. Which screen size to choose depends very much on user preference- some prefer small, portable machines, whereas some prefer large entertainment powerhouses. Even though notebooks with larger screens tend to be bulkier, heavier and drains more power, users do get much more working/ viewing space: spectacular for photo editing, spreadsheet work or simply movie watching.
– Screen type. A screen is usually consisted of a panel and a backlight. The latter functions in generating light required for the panel to work, whereas the panel itself is a thin layer capable of generating the colour as well as the overall display. Mainstream notebooks are mostly equipped with TN panels (of varying qualities) with WLED backlights, whereas newer generation tablets and ultrabooks feature IPS panels instead. Although the resulting output of display panels of different qualities may be intangible to the untrained eye, there will always be variations in terms of black and white levels, colour gamut, screen brightness etc. which may be very important, depending on your level of requirements in photo-editing or publishing.
Screen resolution. Screen resolution indicates the density of pixels (small dots) cramped into the screen. The four most commonly seen screen resolutions are: HD (1366×768), HD+ (1600×900), FullHD (1920×1080) and qHD (3200 x 1800). Higher resolutions basically gives you a larger workspace- you would be able to see more within one screen. Still, higher resolution is not always better, particularly so when used on a small-sized notebook: words and images may become so small that your workflow will be affected. Having more pixels will also translate to higher workload for your laptop’s graphic card (GPU; see below), especially in gaming.
What should I choose?
The quality of your monitor is extremely important for photo editing. Having a good screen will allow you to produce accurate, true-colour photos on top of easy detection of flaws (e.g. dust spots, distortion, vignetting etc.) in your photos. However, do take note that not all screens are colour-accurate out-of-the-box; you might need to calibrate colour accuracy manually.
Basically, if you are not concerned with portability and budget, get a notebook with the larger screen and highest resolution (i.e. 17.3″- 18.4″) or just get a desktop + external monitor . However, if you are always on the move, try and get a 15″ notebook with FullHD IPS screen, they usually offer a balance in terms of performance and portability, without compromising too much on the photo-editing experience.
For road warriors who travel with their laptops but prefer to only do post-processing at home can consider getting a 12″-14″ standard notebook plus a large external monitor (place at home, of course).

  Screen 0   Screen 1   Screen 3

A laptop screen has to be carefully selected for photographic editing to produce high quality photos which are also accurate in terms of colours.[Photos from Dell.com and Apple.com]

5. Dedicated Graphic Processing Unit (GPU)
Apart from the integrated GPU that comes along with the processor, some notebooks will have an extra or discrete GPU to cater to users who require more graphic processing power i.e. games, some photo editing or 3D modelling. Also known as a graphic card, a GPU is specialized for rapid generation of images to be displayed onto the screen. Two of the largest GPU manufacturers now are Nvidia and AMD. Although you do get more graphic-associated capabilities, having a GPU will mean a higher price, higher waste heat and power consumption, so it is not exactly a must-have.
What should I get?
The newer generations of Photoshop make use of the graphic card to enable a visually smoother interface. However, this does not really affect the actual photo-editing process. Most of the time the integrated GPU within the CPU is sufficient- A dedicated GPU is not really needed. However, if you are into other applications, especially gaming, then a GPU can be considered. Performance of a GPU can be best gauged by looking at performance benchmarks (not the numbers on the specs-sheet!).

GPU

A dedicated graphic card will give your laptop an extra boost when it comes to graphic applications. Nvidia and AMD are the two main producers of GPU as of now.

MSI GS70

A slim and powerful beast. A 17.3″ MSI laptop which offers both portability and performance. A laptop like this will make a great travel companion and is quite suitable for not only photography, but also gaming.

Okay! This pretty much sums up the core components you should pay attention to when looking for a computer for photographic-editing. Of course, there are other, relatively minor aspects which may affect your choices, such as:

  • Operating System– pretty much Mac OSX and Windows; which one to choose depends on user preference, and also which OS most of your friends are using.
  • Connectivity– make sure the laptop has proper ports, card slots etc. for your photographic needs.
  • Design and craftsmanship– make sure you like the laptop you buy; after all, you will be stuck with it for many years to come.
  • After-sales services– warranty support is always important, for you will never know when an electric device will start acting up.
  • Battery capacity– a larger battery will be heavier, but will provide more juice for those who are always on the run.

 

Alienware M14x R2

You don’t always have to go for the notebook with the best technical specifications for the price. If design and looks are important to you, then choose the laptop that you like the most (but make sure it fits your usage).

Well, that’s it! I hope this article has helped you in selecting a good notebook for photo processing. Please feel free to ask if you have any enquiries!

Thank you and see you guys next time!

** All photos in this website are taken and owned by me. The use of any photos here is not allowed without my permission. 

Getting that Natural, Creamy Background

Greetings ladies and gentlemen! It feels real great to be writing again. Sorry for the long absence! I have recently got a lectureship in Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman (UTAR) in Kampar, Perak (Malaysia) and I had spent some time settling in (actually I couldn’t think of anything to write :p).

I have recently received a few enquiries on some of my recent macro photos, asking how I managed to get the creamy and smooth bokeh (also known as background blur) for those shots with flash ON and without using an artificial background. I would like to thank you guys kindly for the questions as they have inspired me to write today’s article XD

A macro shot with a smooth and creamy background can attract a lot of attention. This is because (i) the clean background will less likely divert a viewer’s eyes away from the main subject of the photo and (ii) everybody loves bokeh! Learn more about getting natural, creamy backgrounds below.

[*Take note that the methods taught here are more suitable for macro shooting during daytime]

Double-striped Carrhotus- Carrhotus viduus ♂

A male Double-striped Carrhotus (Carrhotus viduus). The smooth and clean background helps attract attention towards the main focus of this photo- the cute jumping spider.

 

Granted, it is actually very easy to get a macro shot with a smooth and buttery background blur during daytime. This can be done by (i) Taking a macro shot without using flash and (ii) using an artificial background (basically bokeh printed on paper) displaying your very own, customizable bokeh patterns.

However, these methods have their own weaknesses: Scenario (i) Taking a shot without a flash may mean that you will have to bump up your ISO and sacrifice image quality; plus the shot will be highly susceptible to movements and shakes. In addition, your subject may not “pop-out” that much without flash. Learn more in Using Flash in Macro Photography. Scenario (ii) is basically “cheating” haha. Still, setting up the artificial background is no easy task (especially if you shoot alone), and the colour and design of the artificial background has to be properly selected to avoid incompatibility too. I have never used this technique, so no photos sorry 😛

Banded bullfrog- Kaloula pulchra ♀

A female Banded bullfrog (Kaloula pulchra). This shot was taken using a 105mm macro lens under natural light. As you can see, the background blur is smooth as silk. However, this shot is only possible as the frog was very cooperative and not moving a single bit.

The method I wanted to share with you today is a whole lot simpler since it basically involves the manipulation of Depth of Field (DOF), no extra gears needed!


Theories theories! Please skip this part if you are already familiar with Depth of Field (DOF)

DOF is the distance between the nearest and farthest objects in a scene that appear acceptably sharp in an image. This can be easily illustrated with a simple picture below. Learn more about DOF and how to overcome it in Overcoming Shallow Depth of Field in Macro Photography and Focus Stack to Overcome Shallow Depth of Field

Depth of Field (DOF) illustrated

Depth of Field (DOF) is basically a perpendicular plane in front of the camera which is decently to perfectly in focus. Note that due to DOF, only the dragonfly is in focus. PS: I apologize for the superbly awesome drawing.

 

After a few sessions of teaching in both Macro Photography and Portrait or Casual Photography, I noticed that many are still not very familiar with DOF. Yes, most beginners were taught to shoot landscapes with small apertures simply because “they have to” or “it is the right way to do it” (assuming you want a landscape shot that is sharp throughout). The same applies for portrait shots, where they “should be” shot with the widest apertures possible to maximize bokeh (assuming you want a portrait with background bokeh). However, most are not really sure why they have to do this, and whether there are other ways of doing it. Many have the impression that DOF is affected solely by aperture, which is of course, not true.

Kellie Castle

A panoramic, landscape shot of Kellie’s Castle in Perak, Malaysia. You don’t always have to use specific, fixed aperture values for a specific type of shot.

The fact is, DOF is not only affected by the aperture (F value), it is also governed by your distance from the subject. Bokeh, on the other hand, is affected by your aperture value, your distance from the subject, and the distance of the background from the subject. By getting these right, you will experience a huge leap in terms of photography skills, which is of course, not only applicable to Macro Photography.

To give you an idea of how DOF is like, let’s take a look at some examples (using non-macro scenarios for easier understanding).

1. For a landscape shot with no subject in the foreground, you can actually get everything sharp regardless of whether you shoot at F2.8, F7 or or the way to F16. Knowing this will help you take better handheld landscape shots since you do not need to bump up ISO that much.

Depth of Field in Landscape shots

Decreasing aperture opening (increasing F value) will increase the Depth of Field (DOF), but it is not always necessary. For a normal landscape shot with no foreground, it doesn’t really matter which aperture settings you use since at a range of infinity (very far away), everything will be in focus- both photos on the right are essentially the same. However, if there is a subject in focus in the foreground (say a ship or a person), then a small aperture (high F value) will be required to ensure that both the subject and the background are in focus.

 

2. You can actually get more bokeh for a portrait (or equivalent) shot by standing closer to your subject. This is one of the major tricks for Macro Photography.

The distance between the camera and the subject will affect DOF

For a subject at a fixed distance from the background and photographed with a fixed aperture setting; you can actually decrease DOF and thus increase the amount of background blur (bokeh) by standing closer to the subject.

 

3. You can also get more bokeh for a portrait (or equivalent) shot by increasing the distance of the background from your subject. This is especially useful in Macro Photography if you take photos using subject displacement, as covered here: Taking Photos that People Like.

The distance between the subject and the background will affect DOF

For a subject with a fixed distance from the camera (and photographed with fixed aperture settings), you will get more background blur (bokeh) if the background is farther and outside the DOF.

 


 

Let’s Shoot!

Now that you know what affects DOF, let’s get back to Macro Photography.

Although it is a good, fixed setting for beginners, you don’t always have to shoot at ISO100, F16-F20, shutter speed 1/200-250 and a certain power of flash. If you use this setting all the time, you will often end up getting macro photos with properly-lid subjects, but with pitch black backgrounds. This is because the low ISO value, coupled with fast shutter speed and small aperture prevents the sensor from “detecting” the light coming from the background. This is especially true if the background is far away from the subject. An article has already been written on how to avoid getting dark backgrounds: 5 Ways to Minimize Dark Backgrounds in Macro Shots.

Ant-mimicking Katydid

An Ant-mimicking Katydid. If the background is far away from the subject, one will not be able to properly expose it using the universal macro settings of ISO100-200, F16-18, 1/200 with flash. The background will end up being entirely black, as seen in this shot. Of course, there is nothing wrong with a background like this.

There are no fixed settings to get creamy bokeh as it is dependent on numerous factors i.e. size of your subject, your magnification, the distance between you and your subject, available light, your composition and frame etc. To obtain creamy and natural background blur, I follow one action and two steps, as follows:

Action 1. To decrease DOF and get more bokeh, I either (i) Get closer; or (ii) increase aperture opening (decrease F value). In general, for up-closed, highly magnified shots with minimal background, apertures of F16-F20 are desirable. However, if I am taking a shot from a distance, say a spider hanging in the middle of its entire web, I can actually decrease your F value to F5.6-F8 (variable depending on your distance from the subject, and also the size of the subject) and still get the whole spider in focus!

Double-spotted spiny Spider- Thelacantha brevispina ♀

A female Double-spotted spiny Spider (Thelacantha brevispina). The closer you get to your subject in focus, the more the background is blurred. The focus of this shot was on the eyes of this Spiny Spider; however, the DOF was so thin that even the back portion of the spider became blurred out!

Giant Golden Web Spider with a butterfly prey- Nephila pilipes ♀

In order to accommodate both the large Nephila spider and its butterfly prey into the frame, I have to shoot from a longer distance. This shot was taken with an aperture of F6.3 which still managed to keep the spider and butterfly in focus. Shooting at this setting allows better exposure and background bokeh than shooting with the “default” or “universal” macro settings, which will give you an entirely black background.

Step 1. Estimate the distance between the subject and the background.

No, there is no need to literally measure the real distance between the subject and background; it is just a mere estimate that allows you to determine whether your flash will be able to lid the background and hence, be recorded by your camera. The measurement will come automatically after you are more familiar with your macro and flash systems.

if the background is very close to the subject (e.g. some leaves behind the subject), it will probably be in range of your flashgun, which is all good. You can get a decent shot with the usual macro setting. Action 1 is applied to decrease DOF and get more bokeh.

Stink Bug (Hemiptera)

A Stink Bug (Hemiptera). This particular bug was resting on a leaf of a short plan. There were a lot of other leaves in the not-too-distant background (and within the range of my flash), so all I needed to do was to stick to the usual settings [Shot taken at ISO100, F16, 1/250, flash power 1/4] for proper exposure. I made sure that I get a bit closer to the bug to decrease the DOF, and thus increase the bokeh.

If the background is very far from the subject (e.g. very distant trees or sky), my flash will not be able to reach objects in the distant background, I therefore have to compensate by giving the sensor more time to “detect” the light coming from the background. I will attempt to increase the amount of background light going into the camera sensor by (i) decrease shutter speed (my minimum is 1/100 without tripod; non-moving subjects); (ii) increase ISO value (my maximum is usually 640; YMMV). The dimmer the background, the slower shutter speed, and the higher ISO sensitivity is required. Again, Action 1 is applied to decrease DOF and get more bokeh.

A Dark Glassy Tiger- Parantica agleoides

A Dark Glassy Tiger Butterfly (Parantica agleoides). The background was a bit dark so I crank up the ISO to 400 for this shot. I would have decreased the shutter speed to a slower value if the butterfly wasn’t moving. Again, the aperture opening was increased by decreasing F value to F8. [Shot taken at ISO400, F8, 1/200, flash power 1/4]

Step 2. Adjust flash power for proper exposure.

Once you have applied Rule 1 and Step 1; if you fire a shot now, the resulting photo will probably be too bright or too dark if you are using default flash power (say 1/8 power; variable depending on your Macro Diffusion System). This is because the light entering the camera sensor has changed. For example, If you are photographing a subject with a distant background, and you have decreased your shutter speed to 1/100 and increased your ISO to 400 (to allow more light into the sensor), firing your flash at default 1/8 power will definitely overexpose your subject.

This can be easily rectified by reducing the power by a few stops. Knowing which flash power to use will require experience and practice. But for starters, if the subject is overexposed, just decrease flash power; if the subject is underexposed, just increase flash power- simple as that!

Getting flash output right

Getting the flash output right is the final step to getting a superb macro photo! The shot on the left is underexposed, the middle shot overexposed; the shot on the right demonstrates how the underexposed shot can be recovered using post-processing. It is important to note that an underexposed shot carries more details than overexposed ones. However, it is always best to get the exposure right in the first place!

Your flash exposure does not have to be 100% perfect since you could always “save” your photos in post-processing if  you shoot in RAW. However, it will be a good practice to try and get the exposure as good as possible to reduce potential loss of details. Also, do take note that it is easier to recover details from underexposed photos than overexposed ones.

An adult Dang's Cross Spider releasing dragline silk- Argiope dang ♀

An adult female Dang’s Cross Spider releasing dragline silk (Argiope dang). Practice makes perfect. After numerous trial-and-errors, you will eventually be able to get the settings, and therefore the bokeh right!

Okay, I suppose that is all there is to getting natural and creamy bokeh for your macro shots. It will require a little bit of practice when applying this particular trick; however, once you get the hang of it, you will be amazed how much it helps improve your photographs (not limited only to Macro Photography).

Until the next article, Happy Macro-ing guys!